Wes Kumfer studied how demographics can affect a driver's likelihood of being involved in a fatal crash.
Few people want to spend years digging through accident reports to figure out the similarities and differences in fatal highway accidents.
Wesley Kumfer is one of those people.
Kumfer came to Texas Tech University from Colorado Springs, Colorado, to study civil engineering. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees working under transportation engineering professor Hongchao Liu in the TransTech Laboratory, and is working on a doctoral degree in traffic engineering. For years he has studied fatal highway crashes to determine what role demographic factors like gender, race and age play in such accidents.
Kumfer is one semester away from being hooded, having published and presented numerous papers. To add to his resume, this weekend he was honored as this region's student of the year at a national meeting for university transportation centers.
Texas Tech is a member of the Southern Plains Transportation Center (SPTC), which is composed of eight universities in the U.S. Department of Transportation's Region 6, consisting of Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. It is one of 10 regional centers in the country.
Every January, just before the federal Transportation Research Board (TRB) of the National Academies holds its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., these university transportation centers hold the Council of University Transportation Centers awards banquet, in which one student from each center is honored. Those students then attend the TRB conference, the largest transportation conference in the world.
Kumfer was already attending the conference, where he will present two research papers. Sanjaya Senadheera, an associate professor of civil engineering and an associate director of the SPTC, encouraged Kumfer to apply for the center's student of the year recognition.
“It's a tough crowd,” Kumfer said. “Other students have published more papers and are further along in their research.”
He won, to his surprise, though not Senadheera's.
“Wesley's record as an outstanding graduate student in our transportation engineering program enabled us to nominate him for this award,” Senadheera said. “What makes Wesley stand out is his strong dedication to all aspects of transportation including research, teaching and service activities.”
Fatal Crash Research
The research didn't begin as a way to answer the battle-of-the-sexes, are-men-or-women-better-drivers question. What he found was that women and men don't have accidents at different rates but get into different kinds of accidents.
Male drivers are more likely to be in single-vehicle accidents, Kumfer's research showed, while female drivers were more likely to be in multi-vehicle accidents.
“I would guess it has to do with driver behaviors – things like driving while you're distracted, drinking alcohol and speeding,” he said. “Those tend to be associated with male drivers, especially speeding. They're also associated with single-vehicle crashes.
“Risky driving behavior tends to be done more when you're alone and driving at night on empty roads, so those are things that men tend toward more than women.”
The literature he studied indicated women's weakness in driving had more to do with the way women process information.
“When you come to something like an intersection where there are a lot of different factors at play and different decisions have to be made, women are more prone toward crashes in those situations,” he said.
Whites are in more multi-vehicle crashes than other races, which Kumfer attributed to whites being the majority in most areas and being likely to be driving, particularly commuting. Being on the road more means more accidents.
Kumfer is presenting a paper at the TRB conference called “Investigating the Effects of Demographic and Driver Factors on Single-Vehicle and Multi-Vehicle Fatal Crashes Using Multinomial Logistic Regression.” Only about 25 percent of the thousands of papers submitted from researchers throughout the world are selected for a lectern presentation at this conference, so Kumfer's selection is notable.
His adviser guessed that selection was at least in part because of the importance of the research.
“Every year we lose 30,000 to 40,000 lives in traffic accidents in the U.S., and a large portion of fatal crashes are attributed to human errors,” Liu said. “Driver behavior varies largely in different driver groups, and the ongoing and future demographic changes present a big challenge to highway safety.”
What To Do With It
The results of Kumfer's research won't change the way engineers design roads quite so much as they'll change how people approach driving.
“I think you need to understand what sort of crashes people are going to be in so you can target particular educational programs,” he said.
Knowing how a driver's age, sex and ethnicity affect his or her decision-making skills will enable driver's education programs to be more targeted and will give the road construction officials more information on contributing causes of fatal accidents.
He and Liu also are presenting a software-based driver's education program to teenagers in rural South Plains schools. Some form of driver's ed is necessary, Kumfer said, but its effectiveness in the current form is debated. A driver's education that is more fact-based and addresses certain realities, like the way a teenager thinks, may be more effective.
“I think a lot of it has to do with teenagers and the way they perceive the world,” he said. “They think of themselves as invincible and possessing a lot more skill than they really do.”
“Ideally if we could develop better educational materials that target them where they're at and help them realize they aren't invincible and are likely to engage in this sort of behavior, that would be great.”
Kumfer also would like to see this work cause change closer to home. Texas and California have the highest rates of fatal accidents in the United States. The number of cars on the road and the sheer amount of roadways contribute to that statistic, he said, but the two states account for a fifth of U.S. traffic fatalities each year. More is in play here than simply having more people, he said. Two states shouldn't be responsible for 20 percent of fatal highway accidents.
He's hoping this research will play a role in future highway safety manuals, which the Federal Highway Administration publishes and is the main documentation on transportation safety. He'd also like to help individual states make more informed decisions on driver's education.
“With traffic engineering, we're already working on making roads more efficient,” Kumfer said. “I guess I kind of highly value human life and humanity in general, so this seemed a bit more interesting to me to study particular crash predictions and how to make roads safer.”
Kumfer's Other Research
Kumfer's research to this point has run the gamut on transportation methods. The other paper he's presenting at the TRB conference deals with autonomous vehicles like the Google car. Through creating basic scenarios, he attempted to determine what decision a driverless car would make when presented with a choice and how it would make that decision, which ultimately comes down to the driver's ethics.
“Does it value the owner of the vehicle? Does it value someone else's life more?” Kumfer asked. “Trying to program ethics is a nearly insurmountable task.”
His research shows the vehicle will make the utilitarian choice, which means it will maximize the overall benefit in a situation.
His master's thesis dealt with cycling in the United States. Kumfer compared mid-sized cities from throughout the country and found safety and motorist behaviors to be at the top of every biker's list of concerns.
“What I ended up determining there was that a lot of factors between cities of different sizes tend to be similar,” he said. “Bicyclists tend to be concerned with the same thing no matter where they're at.”
He has another paper he's trying to get published, which deals with population change and whether predicting the number of fatal crashes based on population variables is possible. Spoiler: it is. While the data is not complete, Kumfer found he could predict, with 95 percent confidence, the number of total fatal crashes in the country based on data from a few states' data.
What that means, he said, is because state and federal transportation agencies will have more information predicting crashes, they can take more effective steps to reduce the number of fatal highway crashes.